Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Many Agelessnesses of AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997)


A lot of shit went down in 1997, the year AUSTIN POWERS came out: loungecore was the big vibe in downtown New York and my loungey clique was so 'hip' we made the cover of the New York Times style section; Faxy Brown was Thursdays, often at Lansky's; Weds was lounge night at Windows on the World (top floor of the World Trade Center); Friday was for tourists, man, so we stayed in and did ecstasy and watched Connery or Lazenby Bond movies. Feather boas, bands like Tipsy, Martin Denny, Esquivel, Pizzicato 5; drinks like cosmopolitans, manhattans, and martinis; Cigarettes and tuxedo jackets over silk shirts; smoking cigarettes everywhere but the elevator; Moby and Fancy and Molly who got rich as a dominatrix and moved right up to the big leagues... then... it all... changed. Ecstasy was no longer the drug of choice; cocaine was cheaper suddenly and widely available --I didn't like it; Sex and the City premiered, imitating our style just enough to make our style seem idiotic; swing dancing took over from the usual freestyle. You needed to know how to swing dance or you'd 'do it wrong' so interpretive moderns like me had to sit it out before the 'Cabaret Law' killed even that limited expression.

I judge, not just because I was too dyslexic to learn swing dancing, but because the scene was never about syncopation or following some actual rhythm, man. It was about lack of principles. As 96 bloomed in full, we ruled. The term metrosexual was about to be coined just for us; Sex and the City was still just a column in some magazine; straight men kissed each other hello; everyone's face was stubbly with sexy shadow. Absolutely Fabulous was our message in a bottle from Swinging London, and then AUSTIN POWERS. Formidable!

AUSTIN POWERS survived the end. It was more than just cultural zeitgeist/touchstone kind of hit. And that's too bad, because all the success went to Mike Myers' head, just as it did Molly's and mine and all them who jumped on the cheap-cocaine train that officially kicked loungedelicness to the curb First, Giuliani banned dancing like he was goddamn John Lithgow in FOOTLOOSE, then 9/11 exploding of Windows on the World; then I almost died on a massive ten-day bender, watching AUSTIN over and over drinking and wondering: where have all the flowers gone? It wasn't about alcoholism, ecstasy, ennui, fabulousness, thrift couture, blase attitude and gallery hopping anymore. It was about whispers between certain people at the Saturday night parties.

And Myers did The Spy who Shagged Me


But first - It's a labor of love, is our initial AUSTIN, innocent of all expectations of the status awaiting it. Myers is most hilarious when he's operating low and off the cuff with no pressure to measure up to a previous hit (the bombing of I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER in the wake of WAYNE'S WORLD, for example). To paraphrase Mr. De Mille, too much fame, pressure and money can do terrible things to one's sense of comic timing. All your cool friends are suddenly crowded out by sycophantic well-wishers and the elbowing entourages of second string celebrities all out for a bite of your zeitgeist. When it's gone, so are they, and all that's left is the sad Late Show jokes involving the accidental consumption of bodily fluids, focusing big budget laser beam attention on the slack-jawed 6-7 year old easy mark in all of us.

The original AUSTIN however was initially just another SNL comedy from a man who had rocketed to fame on the catch phrase-laden WAYNE'S WORLD and flamed out in WAYNE'S WORLD 2. A;; old and overplayed had the "party on, Wayne"-itude had become, we were doubtful about AUSTIN being as good as it looked in the ads.

But it was.

Mike Myers' instantly legendary character was as anachronistic as Don Quixote and as "enduring" in its age as Cervantes' in his. Myers' film barely bothered to mine the riches of the conceit, instead dealing with Austin's slow integration into the social order, and ditto Dr. Evil (also Myers), who gets almost as much screen time and has his own problems, like a now-grown-to-surly-adulthood test tube son (Seth Green) and untidy underlings like the tragically named Number 2 (a game Robert Wagner).


As the main bird, super sexy and attractively inhibited, Elizabeth Hurley never wastes a moment to get on Austin's case, just like a typical late 1990s girlfriend weaned on 90210 and Sex and the City. In one tragic scene, Austin has just demolished a whole squad of femme-bots, using nothing but the power of his shirtless mojo. Hurley (mind you, they've not yet had it off by this point in the film); she comes in and finds him covered in blonde hair and bikini parts. Instantly, the most important thing for him is that she believes he was being faithful! FAITHFUL!!!! TO WHAT??? They've not had it on. If I was the bad guy in THE WARRIORS I'd throw a handful of candy at her. But Austin just squirms in guilt. "I believe you, Austin," she says, never once doubting the rightness of her own moral position as cocktease supremis. She hasn't even slept with him but demands ultimate fidelity. That wasn't what metrosexuality was supposed to be about. 

It's a neat comment on the "unfun" 90s that Hurley's main job in life seems to be tampering down Austin's bon vivant playahood, raining on his parade, and making him like it by pure virtue of her inescapable hotness. This being the age of AIDS and ADD, it doesn't matter if he's just saved the entire freaking universe and danger is allegedly all around, it's only important that Hurley believes he's not had it off with a robot.  

Bill, your balls are in the mail.

In the interest of science, I've defrosted one of my very first film reviews (from my forcibly discontinued but now reposted 1997 AOL web site, "Dr. Twilite's Neighborhood") to compare and contrast:
Finally, a movie that satirizes our collective nostalgia for the sixties. Mike Myers gets the giddy deliria down pat as Austin Powers, a sly London "mod" photographer/super spy. He also plays the villain, Dr. Evil, a sort of composite of the Ernst Stavros Blofeld and Myer's old SNL guru, Lorne Michaels. After a cataclysmic battle at a London nightclub, Dr. Evil escapes Power's clutches and cybergenetically freezes himself. Austin does the same, and soon they are both thawing out in the chill, no-fun nineties. It's an ingenious premise, and Myers has hung a variety of assorted gags around it, in addition of course, to the now required scatalogical humor.

Therein lies the only major problem with the picture. Compared to the non-stop zing of the NAKED GUN movies, Myer's own WAYNE'S WORLD, or even the real BOND series, AUSTIN sometimes meanders and drags, less a spy movie than a series of related skits ala SNL. But the skits are funny, Myers is always dead-on, and as Powers' "Bond girl", Elizabeth Hurley proves herself to be a very good comedic sport. The film may come off as being a bit stretched out here and there, but you have to admire Mike Myer's off-the wall lunatic originality, as well as his subtle message to all the retro types out there who dress for a time they never knew. As Dr. Evil so succinctly puts it: "There's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster." (1999) ***
What?? Bitch please...in 1986 when you started dressing like you were from 1967, and then in 1997 you dressed like you were in 20s. Erich of the past, be not smug (PS - I wrote this coda re-editing this post in 2012, so there you go, see you in the frozen HELL of the post-Mayan future!) 

ADDENDUM 6/14: Just watched it again, man it holds up well. It's been 20 years. We watched the first CHARLIE'S ANGELS movie afterwards and that film has not aged nearly as well. Like one long commercial for itself, CA is all slow-mo struts to classic pop hits that happen to have the word "angel" in the title. That's all it is. AUSTIN still has meat, and it's due to the Hurley angle - her sincerity has come to pass. And I have to agree with her--not just because she's hot. I've become cynical, I personally have examined all facets of the lifestyle I used to endorse, and they all lead to dead ends. Hurley was right. Humans need conflict and challenges (as Kirk said in "This Side of Paradise" where a space poppy promotes total happiness and surrender and no one in the crew wants to go to back to work). Austin's validation of both worlds - 'it was about freedom' vs. sex and drugs, and the new world being just as good, show him to be worthy of the golden goose.

1 comment:

  1. The first AUSTIN POWERS was fun but I still think that Myers best work was SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER where he wasn't afraid to play a protagonist without any make-up, prosthetics, etc. (he saved that for playing the scene-stealing dad to to his protag). Sadly, the film's commercial and critical failure scared him off doing this again and we've been inundated with endless AUSTIN sequels and THE GURU.

    Altho, he was pretty terrific in 54.

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